The business of issuing degrees online, without imparting any real education through a proper coursework, is an international nuisance, pandering to the needs of men and women, looking for professional advancement or economic gain, but unwilling to work for it. Undoubtedly, when untrained professionals oust and replace honest, hard-working folk, in a limited universe of jobs, the ‘intellectual wasteland’ of idiots will broaden. And honest folk will not like that. But then, how many of us are honest?

The extent of this menace is not limited to opportunists and con artists, conjuring the English and American sounding accreditations, professors and university names. The stink of the cesspool extends to the buyers of these degrees who, according to a Stanford study, ‘complexities in legislative suppression of diploma mills’, are fully aware of the risks and opportunities of the ‘product’ they are buying. According to the aforementioned study, ‘the ranks of diploma mill customers include US intelligence officers and other government workers, engineers, public school teachers, a college president, and bogus physicians and psychiatrists who take on unsuspecting patients’.

In Pakistan, an expose` on one of many global diploma mill networks, Axact, has sparked more debate and publicity than the return of cricket to its vacant cricket grounds after six long years.

Like the United States, where representatives of government are also part of the problem, in Pakistan, our former Minister of Religious Affairs, Aamir Liaquat, earned, no bought his undergraduate, post graduate and doctorate degrees from Trinity College in Spain that limited its marketing pitch to two slogans, ‘everything by email’ and ‘get your degree today’. In 2010, when the issue of fake degrees threatened, or at least seemed to threaten elected representatives in the Baloch Assembly, Chief Minister Raisani’s response sounded more like an admission of guilt than a rebuttal. His words were, ‘degrees are degrees, fake or real’.

Considering how the axis of fake-degree-evil is reasonably balanced between buyer and seller alike, and has its tentacles tickling hollow statesmen in the highest echelons of power, how far can the state go in exacting justice? And to begin with, what will become of Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh, the owner of Axact and BOL TV Network?

Once Shoaib was taken into custody on May 27, these questions have led to all sorts of answers, none of which sound befitting to an increasingly vengeful audience. In the absence of cyber crime legislation or a relevant precedent within Pakistan’s legal trade, the Federal Intelligence Agency (FIA) has looked askance to the United States and the United Kingdom for help. Both countries have struggled in their quest to find justice for precisely the same reason: lack of specific cyber crime legislation and the additional issue of the absence of an international force to curb crimes involving multiple countries, transcending legal peculiarities and national borders. Not to mention the narrow approach of fixating on the sellers of a vice, leaving the buyers the option to engage with the same vice elsewhere. Skepticism that the UK and US will probably fail to provide Pakistan with a breakthrough, on the Axact case is therefore not unwarranted.

Before Declan Walsh blew the cover on Axact, St. Regis University was the largest diploma mill network known to US authorities. The dynamic husband and wife duo of Dixie and Steve Randock, first ‘greased’ Liberia’s ambassador to the United States, and then a series of international bureaucrats of various Higher Education Commissions to secure support, at least to the extent of accreditations. In 2001, the couple launched St. Regis University and made the mistake of dating operations to 1984, a time when the internet was merely a research project. The couple made other blunders, but remained untouched until 2005. By then the Randocks had sold over 7.3 millions dollars worth of degrees in engineering, healthcare, business, education and other fields across 131 countries.

In 2008, Dixie was sentenced to three years in prison and Steve, who was recovering from an open heart surgery at the time, was going to receive a sentence later the same year. Their daughter, who was the highest paying adviser of the racket, was sentenced to one year in prison. The family forfeited a little over half a million dollars and their late-model Jaguar. And to set an example, amongst 10,000 customers of St. Regis University only 12 firefighters were fined for purchasing fake degrees.

From the perspective of the ‘authorities’, this was one small but notable success. Back then, the diploma mill industry was estimated to be worth over a billion dollars. Today, intelligence agencies predict there are more fake degrees in the world than real ones and that the industry is much larger than ever before. The obvious lacuna in American law that allows diploma mills to flourish is that education fraud is not a federal subject. In fact, in 2009, only twelve states criminalized the use of unaccredited or invalid degrees, a feature that bodes well for the nomadic diploma mill entrepreneur. This also explains why, apart from the few exceptions like the Randocks, the industry has managed to thrive in the US.

In case of Axact, a company that showcased American campuses, professors and accreditations to lure students, while all the time working out of Karachi, Dubai or other offshore locations, Shoaib Shaikh will probably be charged for multiple wrongdoings, including, ‘cheating for personation’ and ‘cheating with knowledge that wrongful loss may ensue to person whose interest offender is bound to protect’, under sections 416 and 418 of the Pakistan Penal Code. The maximum punishment for crimes within these sections is seven years imprisonment, where twelve hours constitute a day, along with a certain standardized fine (which may not be contingent on the scale of monies wrongfully accumulated). Black money, however, often gives birth to new crimes, and so, the accurate depth of Axact’s shenanigans and their corresponding punishments remain unknown to the public at large.

Regardless of how deep the FIA is able to dig with foreign assistance though, the investigations will most likely cease in their tracks when they lead back to important people in important places. For instance, GEO and Express and the electronic media fraternity in general is correct in denouncing the business of fake degrees. But when the same industry hires phonies with fake degrees like Aamir Liaquat, and pay millions of rupees to such people to talk with authority on subjects they actually know nothing about, they too are guilty of knowingly cheating Pakistan and they too must be dragged to court.